The Florida Democrat Who Told Off a Racist Heckler and Won Anyway

A week that began with Florida Democrats blowing yet another election ends with them mourning their first real progressive governor. Reubin Askew, who served during the Nixon, Ford, and Carter years, died at age 85 and is being remembered not for his doomed 1984 presidential run (people forget, but Reagan looked beatable) but for his daring moves on race. He appointed the state’s first black Supreme Court justice and Cabinet member, and did this in an era when George Wallace could easily win the Democratic primary in Florida.

But he revealed his progressivism long before that. The better Askew obits are remembering his resoonse to a heckler in 1958, when Florida was still heavily segregated. Had Upworthy existed in the Eisenhower years, you might have seen a headline like “This Southern Politician Was Told He Had to Hate to Win. What He Did Next Will Make You Stand and Cheer.”

What did he say? The Tampa Bay Times goes for censorship-by-dashes.

He was first elected to the state House in 1958 after a campaign in which a heckler hurled a common epithet of the times and called him a “n—– lover.” He responded: “The trouble is, I don’t love them enough. The difference between you and me is I’m trying to overcome my prejudices and you’re not.”

An earlier profile left the insult intact.

At a political rally, a heckler had called Askew a “niggerlover.” The former paratrooper replied “Yes, I hope so. The trouble is that I don’t love them enough. The difference between you and me is that you’re satisfied with your prejudices and I’m trying to overcome mine.” 

This was 1958. That same year, that same election, George Wallace was running for governor in the bordering state of Alabama. Similar Democratic electorate. Wallace was backed by the NAACP; his opponent was backed by the KKK. Wallace lost, and depending on who tells the story he either said he’d never be “out-niggered” or “out-segged” (as in segregation) again.